SALISBURY BEACH — The massive stone jetty that juts out into the sea is due for a major overhaul this summer, but it may make the already boat-crowded mouth of the Merrimack even more hectic.
Nine firms have bid on the project, and the work is expected to be awarded to the lowest bidder, Cashman Corp. of Braintree, said Jack Karalius, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. Cashman bid $8.4 million, good news for the project since the Army Corps had estimated the cost would be about $9 million.
"Almost all the bids came in around the $9 to $10 million range," said Karalius.
The project will fill in massive gaps that have developed in the jetty since its last major overhaul, over 40 years ago. The gaps are believed to contribute to erosion problems along both Plum Island and Salisbury Beach.
The gaps also interfere with the basic design physics of the jetty. In conjunction with its sister jetty on Plum Island, it creates a funnel effect on the water that rushes out of the mouth of the Merrimack River, creating a scouring effect that blasts away sandbars that form at the river mouth. These sandbars are a dangerous hazard for boaters.
The Army Corps is inspecting Cashman's equipment and checking its financials, Karalius said, and once that is done the project should get — probably early May, or maybe late April, Karalius said.
The timing pushes the project up against the start of the boating season. That could be a problem, because the 30,000 tons of stones that will be needed to fix the jetty will be brought in by barge, and all of the stone-lifting work will be conducted from waterbased craft, creating shipping hazards for boaters.
The possibility of boating hazards became a point of discussion Friday at a meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, a group of local, state and federal officials who meet regularly to find solutions to coastal problems. Alliance co-chairman Bruce Tarr, a state senator from Gloucester, plans to have a comprehensive meeting at the Coast Guard Station Merrimack River before the project begins, in order to discuss the maritime aspects of the project.
The mouth of the Merrimack is a tricky waterway to navigate, and according to the Coast Guard, movement of sandbars that occurred this winter appears to have made it even more hazardous. An enormous sandbar that extends off the outermost tip of the jetties, called "The Bar," appears to have grown substantially, making the waters there very shallow even at mid tide. Boats with deep drafts, such as sailboats, may have difficulty running aground as they pass over it. "The Bar" also generates big waves when water passes over it, which can knock small boats around.
Also, the repair of the Plum Island Jetty has greatly changed the sand dynamics at the river mouth. It has scoured out an immense amount of sand at the northernmost tip of the island, and that sand has deposited in a variety of places in the river mouth. The navigational hazards are being investigated by the Coast Guard.
The Alliance discussed the possibility that the location of the jetty's repair barges may complicate the situation, narrowing the area in which boaters can manuever. Typically in the late spring, when striped bass and bluefish arrive at the river mouth, dozens of smallcraft can be found there, zig-zagging, drifting, and anchoring in their efforts to catch fish. It can be a chaotic scene in a waterway that is known to be one of the most dangerous rivermouths along the East Coast.
"Those barges are going to take up a lot of room in the channel," said Ron Barrett, president of the Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates.
Karalius said the contract states that the jetty repair craft cannot block the channel.
Another concern is the work will be taking place at the apex of Salisbury Beach State Reservation during the height of the summer season. Tarr said there will need to be increased monitoring of the site to ensure that the public doesn't go out on the jetty or get too close to the worksite.
The North Jetty work is expected to take about a year to complete, Karalius said.